I am pacing. I’m spending the night of August 21, 2008, pacing the floor of a 10’ x 8’4” x 10’ cell in the downtown police lockup at 1718 S. State. I’ve spent some time mentally calculating this, based on the size of a cinder block, eight by sixteen inches including mortar lines.
I will next devote 15 minutes of my life to calculating the cell’s precise volume, but this is tricky because there is an angle which will require a hypotenuse calculation, and I have no pen and only 10 sheets of valuable toilet paper. I am agitated: there is nothing to do here. My life is being wasted here. I am in a very nice suit. I am pacing.
It’s only the third time I’ve ever been jailed. It always happens after I’ve tried to do something about some civic issue. This time, I had my time cut short by the chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission and was then arrested while standing quietly at the back of the room. They had to trump up a charge, lying that I’d “yelled obscenities.” That will be easy to disprove, considering all of the witnesses—but it will take yet another little piece of my busy life, of my strained well-being.
We’d spent much of the past year suing the city to stop the Latin School soccer field in Lincoln Park, and today the field was sure to be rubber-stamped by a commission packed with Daley appointees. Pimps never appreciate it when you ask in front of 500 people and reporters how they can sleep at night.
While pacing the floor of the cell, I realize that it is 40 years ago this week that Lincoln Park erupted. August 21 was the day the kids were in the neighborhood decrying the Prague action. The next day, August 22, Sioux Indian Dean Johnson would be shot and killed in cold blood by Chicago police on Wells Street, amid the growing conflict surrounding the convention. The next seven days would be the Democratic National Convention and more bloodshed.
As I pace, it briefly occurs to me that the land I’m in jail for trying to restore to a meadow, is precisely where kids were teargassed and beaten 40 years ago this week. The ill-fated MC-5 concert was held in exactly that spot. It was also one of the preferred sleeping areas in the bloody nighttime turf battles with the police.
Although Old Town and Lincoln Park today are a cultural toilet, shadows from their noble 1960s follow us through our lives, make us who we are.
I didn’t understand what was happening that gray afternoon when a Black Panther came to our house on Schiller Street and warned us that whites were not safe here, that we should probably get out of town for a few days. I spent years with Delia Cunningham at Second City’s Parents School, the tiny alternative school our families collaborated to build. But I had no idea that her parents Dennis and Mona were also running the People’s Law Office not far away, nor would I have known what a law office was. I did not understand the big words telling of the social strife and political violence that my dad was covering for the newspapers. And my sisters regularly went to their Girl Scout meetings at Church of the Three Crosses with Rev. Larry and Katheryn Dutenhaver’s daughters, and our family attended many community events there — but we had no inkling at the time what the Young Lords did, though we saw them there constantly. I was just a kid.
I was surrounded by these and many other historic connections, and though I experienced Old Town’s political heyday, I was far too young to understand what it all meant. Somehow, the ethic still filtered into me. A general mistrust of authority. A disrespect for many politicians and police officers, and for judges who are wives of politicians who were once police officers.
Above all, I feel a rather reckless determination to speak out, take notes, make contact, when my inner voice is screaming at me to walk away and mind my own business. Don’t you lie to me: you know very well what I’m talking about, better than most people in this city.
And the astonishing fact is that you do not even have to have grown up within it to have had the spirit filter into you. I know so many others who have spent their hours in these cells for equally good reasons.
With this, pacing alone in a jail cell, listening to the Black youth, apparently cousins, yelling in the next cell; watching with concern as the Hispanic youth in the cell across begins vomiting violently into the stainless steel toilet; pacing my hours away, counting off the seconds of my life and theirs.
The sound of our heels forever hitting the floor makes for memories of our years ago, ideations of our years to come—profound, painful, but somehow beautiful with hope. There is much to do, but I promise I will not call this wasted time. I am, after all, pacing. ◊
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